Jessica Robinson was born to handle intimate, intricate events. Her mother worked for Capital Party Rentals and decorated events for the family church. Her uncles ran a catering business, and as a teen she did billing for them and provided quotes to clients. Starting at age 18, she was an administrative assistant, managing important people’s schedules and papers.
Robinson won praise at Aetna and the Department of the Interior, but “I wasn’t really fulfilling a purpose,” she says. She tapped old skills when a co-worker asked her to handle a surprise 60th-birthday party. After she started a small event-planning business in 2002, along came graduations, parties and other special occasions.
But she resisted wedding receptions. Too much emotion and commotion.
Still, Robinson noticed that clients are “more likely to spend money on planning for a wedding than for other events, where I might just get to decorate” and that her customers were likely to be less stressed if she planned their event rather than simply added the frills. (The stress transferred to Robinson, who spent lunch breaks doing research and late nights working on her event-planning business.)
After a couple of weddings, the planner wasn’t sure she was doing things right. “If a bride can look online [for resources], what good am I to her if I just look there, too?” Robinson thought. So, in 2006, she turned to an expert: Shelby Tuck-Horton, a respected pro who taught a class called “The Wedding Coordinator” at Prince George’s Community College.
Tuck-Horton’s two-session winter class (email@example.com; 301-322-0797) piles on the detail. The first six hours cover business skills; office setup; software; marketing; fees; contracts; licenses; career development and certification; and working with lawyers, accountants and insurers. The second six hours cover wedding and reception planning, including setting a budget and working with vendors.
Why the tough stuff first? “I tell them if they get through part one and aren’t frightened, they can come back for part two,” Tuck-Horton says with a smile. The class, just $50 a session, “is one of our most popular offerings,” says Mary Jane Shearer, program coordinator at PGCC.
Tuck-Horton offers students a realistic view of what many see as easy money or fairy-tale work. On the up side, you can be your own boss, help make people’s dreams come true and make site visits to the Caribbean — as she did in May. On the down side are emotional drama, many hours on your feet and weekend work. If you run a full-time business, she says, you may make $50,000 to more than $100,000 in the D.C. area, but gigs are irregular, and you pay your own benefits.
Robinson, 29, is one of Tuck-Horton’s few alumni to become a professional wedding planner. Unlike hobbyists or those who lack the necessary business sense, management skills (including organization of time and space), ease with people or creativity, Robinson had all that plus energy and experience. In 2007, she left the government and launched Elegant Events full time.
The challenges haven’t been only clearing a beach wedding site of sunbathers or having a dog jump through a scenic screen. There’s balancing several weddings at once in warm weather with more marketing and training in cold weather. And working all weekend only to have a weekday or two off. And having to keep up with new trends, new vendors and new skills. To that end, Robinson has been certified by the Association of Bridal Consultants and the Wedding Planning Institute.
Brides appreciate how organized and knowledgeable she is. Robinson likes seeing brides smile or cry happily when everything comes together. And it does — even last fall when she arrived two hours early to find the venue without electricity. Robinson set up romantic candles for visibility and hung sheer fabric over the venue’s built-in emergency lights so the power appeared to be on. The reception had no spotlights or DJ sound, but the acoustic guitar still worked. And the bride was thrilled that Elegant Events saved the day.
Having “a passion for what you do” and the grit to stick with it help a planner shine even when the lights don’t, Robinson says. She expects to plan her own wedding when the time comes: “I already know what I like and where to go for it.” But she’ll enlist a colleague to be the day-of coordinator. After all, it’s the bride’s job to experience the wedding, not to sweat its details.
Written by Express contributor Ellen Ryan
Photos by Regan Kireilis